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The Dreamers (Bernardo Bertolucci, 2003)


     Above all, The Dreamers once again reaffirms the fact that Bertolucci is a remarkable visual storyteller. Even though there is a moment or two in its script that makes me wince, there's little denying that the movie has much more to offer than mere words. In this intense chamber drama, set almost entirely in one French apartment during the volatile spring of 1968, not only does the director avoid repeating his images, but also manages to make them suggest depths of character that the script scarcely hints at. Take for example the ravishing image a young woman stripped naked, standing in the shadow of a cross. In this instance, Bertolucci promises redemption that the characters don’t yet realize they need. She is exposing herself, presumably to titillate the two men in the room, but at the same time her actions, and Bertolucci’s framing of them, reveal her inner motivations to us.


    Much has been made of The Dreamers’ sexual content, but it’s clear in moments like these that the drama not only would be less exciting without nudity; it almost wouldn’t exist at all. Bertolucci literally strips his actors bare early on, and soon any shock value or titillating moments pass, leaving in their stead an unusual degree of intimacy. It’s at that point that the director is free to truly confront the audience with the workings of his bizarre love triangle. In every shot, whether by framing a character spying on another from a distance or each of them disturbingly reflected up close in a bathtub, his camera reminds us of the shifting dynamics between his characters. In this magnified atmosphere, the seemingly silly rituals of sex and film trivia that they present to each other take on overtones that are positively ritualistic.



    The three central characters in The Dreamers clearly see the world in cinematic terms, which is a surprisingly rare trait in movies. I love how they are able to find in the cinema a set of moral standards – a clip from Freaks demonstrates their sense of camaraderie as much as one from Mouchette demonstrates a sense of moral consequence or Marlene Dietrich’s Blonde Venus song and dance routine keys them into the exoticism of sex. Individually, these references feel a bit too coy, but when taken as a whole, a worldview begins to emerge. Of course, it’s the cloistering aspect of cinema that encourages the worst sorts of infantile behavior in these ultimately immature young adults. The glory, and the trap, of great cinema is that one can quite easily mistake it for real world experience. As the title suggests, the three young protagonists in this movie are intentionally chasing after a dream promised by the cinema instead of facing the mounting realities of the real world.



    Though Bertolucci is capable of making us understand how intelligent young people could get pulled into this world in the opening scenes, as the movie proceeds, both the sexual escapades between the trio and their willingness to shut themselves off from the political and practical world that surround them begin to inspire more and more queasiness. That strange mixture of knowing that you are doing wrong, yet not being pushed to a point where you have to change your behavior is captured so well here, and, when the time came, I found it moving how political involvement symbolically absolves the characters of their sins. At the same time, however, the film is aware that one impossible dream might only be replacing another. Bertolucci is too smart to either embrace his characters wholeheartedly or damn them for their solipsism. By time the ending of The Dreamers rolls, what seems to be an almost random coupling of setting and character violently dovetails into a wakeup call that demands the idyllic, but harmfully self-absorbed lifestyle that we’ve observed come to an end.






Jeremy Heilman